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Transfer of Power

June 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The unexpected handover ceremony came at mid- morning Baghdad time, the middle of the night in the U.S. The event was convened hastily and secretly inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded green zone. Outgoing U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer read the handover order.

L. PAUL BREMER: As recognized in the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546, the coalition provisional authority will cease to exist on June 28, at which point the occupation will end and the Iraqi interim government will assume and exercise full sovereign authority on behalf of the Iraqi people. We welcome Iraq’s steps to take its rightful place with equality and honor among the free nations of the world. Sincerely, Paul Bremer, ex- administrator of the coalition provisional authority. ( Applause )

KWAME HOLMAN: Two hours after the ceremony, Bremer and his top aides left Iraq on a military plane, their 14-month job at an end. Afterward, Iraq’s new president and prime minister were sworn in to their respective offices. President Ghazi Al-Yawer welcomed the day.

PRESIDENT GHAZI AL-YAWER (Translated): I am happy today, this glorious day to be here in front of you to congratulate you for return of sovereignty. We have a great mission in front of us. And we are asking Allah to give us patience and guidance and blessing to push forward this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Prime Minister Iyad Allawi pledged a democratic Iraq.

IYAD ALLAWI ( Translated ): Iraq will be for Iraqis, regardless of their religion, ethnicity. All Iraqis will enjoy a full citizenship in a country that enjoys justice.

KWAME HOLMAN: And he warned the road ahead would not be easy.

IYAD ALLAWI (Translated): This is a complex mission because great changes in societies takes years and lots of months. If we have the patience and faith in the future. And faith also in the prosperity and democracy and peace. Democracy is our next step. I don’t want to give you false promises. I don’t want to give you a dark image, but I want to give you the facts as they are so that we can, all of us, work together through a free will.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the streets of Baghdad, much of the reaction to the news was hopeful and happy.

MAN ON STREET: We have hanging a lot of belief that Iraq is looking forward to more better prosperity, looking forward to a better future. That’s all Iraq is waiting for.

MAN ON STREET (Translated): We congratulate the Iraqi people on this day, and we hope that the new government will provide us with security and put affairs on the right path.

KWAME HOLMAN: Iraqi security forces as well as U.S. troops stepped up street patrols in anticipation of significant terrorist attacks, akin to those last week that left more than 100 people dead.

JIM LEHRER: More from Baghdad now, as reported by Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times. Terence Smith spoke with him earlier this evening.

TERENCE SMITH: Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome. Tell me, were the Iraqis as surprised as anyone else when this turnover ceremony and swearing-in was moved up 48 hours?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I think they were. I think a lot of people today were really surprised. Everybody had been anticipating June 30 as the big date. The date that this dramatic change would happen on the political scene and the date that there could be enormous violence as a result of that. So today, this morning, when we all woke up around 8:00 or 9:00 A.M. and heard the news that the handover had already happened, we went outside and we began talking to people. And there was this sense of surprise, but also relief that the handover had already been accomplished without the resulting violence that a lot of people had predicted.

TERENCE SMITH: And the Iraqis you talked to, did they think that was a smart idea, or did they see it as some sort of testimony to the fragility of the situation?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I think more of the latter. I think a lot of people realized that the demons that have sort of haunted this occupation starting from the beginning, last April and May, continue to be the same demons that are controlling things right now. I mean, the Americans have not gotten a hold of the insurgency. They have not quashed the insurgency. That was one reason why today they had to have this very important ceremony be held in secret and to be held by surprise.

So I think a lot of Iraqis were sort of cynical by the fact that this was going on behind closed doors. But what we’ve seen over the last few months is that the Iraqi people are much more engaged in the practical issues that affect them, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Things like job, security, electricity, sewage: That’s what’s on people’s minds. This whole idea of a political transformation is somewhat abstract, especially since a lot of American troops are going to remain in Iraq, 140,000. They’re not going anywhere after June 30. So it’s not quite clear to people what exactly is going to change.

TERENCE SMITH: When you went out today after hearing the news and Iraqis hearing the news, what was their reaction to what had happened to the turnover itself? I understand they’re concerned with practical matters, but it’s a different regime now. What was their comment on that?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, I think a lot of people are patient here. I mean, that’s one thing that they learned under Saddam was how to be patient. The society was very dysfunctional. People were treated really badly, and that just sort of lowers the expectations everybody has about life in general. So I think when this transformation happened today, people thought let’s not jump to conclusions, let’s give this new government a chance. Let’s try to figure out what exactly is going to happen over the next few days. A lot of people were optimistic that things will get better. On the security front there were some interesting points. Some people felt that the Iraqis will have a better shot at crushing the insurgency because they speak the language, they know the culture. They know the country. And that was one thing that the Americans have continued… continually struggled with was sort of cracking the code here. The Iraqis know that, so I think a lot of people have faced that the Iraqi security forces will be able to accomplish as much or more as the Americans.

TERENCE SMITH: Now this took place, of course, while there are still some five or at least five foreigners being held as hostage under varying kinds of threats including a U.S. Marine. Anything new on the situation on any of them?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: There’s been a few tidbits that we got out of the marines today. One is that this marine, Corporal Hassoun, had been missing since, I think, July… or, I’m sorry, since June 19. Originally they had said he had been missing June 21, but it looks like he’s been missing for more than a week. Kidnapping has become a real problem in Iraq the last month or two. People believe the kidnappings are organized by the terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who is a Jordanian fugitive who is thought to be operating in Iraq.

Over the past few weeks, several people have been kidnapped. Right now, we have the marine who is in captivity and who his captors have threatened to behead him. We have three Turkish workers who are also threatened to be beheaded. And then last night there was another video that was released that showed a Pakistani man in captivity, again being threatened with beheading. So it’s a pretty scary situation for any foreigner here right now, because we’re all told that the terrorists are looking for soft targets or hard targets like a soldier to use as sort of bargaining chips to free some of their fellow insurgent comrades or just create to sort of an atmosphere of terror.

TERENCE SMITH: Jeffrey, just as we were beginning this conversation we could hear explosions behind you. What are they?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I’m not sure. I was going to say that today had been one of the most peaceful quiet days in Baghdad since I’ve been here. There were very few sounds of gun fire today. No page or mortar attacks or car bombs.

About five minutes ago we heard a battery of very loud explosions near the green zone which is often the target of mortar attacks. We’re not quite sure what this is. American officials had been bracing everybody here for what they call a Baghdad offensive, a large-scale terrorist uprising that would hit Baghdad starting today through the transition of June 30. One reason why they pushed up the date to today was to try to sort of foil any plans the terrorists have. But a lot of people are worried that today’s quiet may just mean that it’s going to get worse and worse over the next few days.

TERENCE SMITH: Jeffrey Gettleman, thanks very much.